A Tribute to NASA’s Katherine Johnson (RIP): Learn About the Extraordinary Mathematician Who Broke Through America’s Race & Gender Barriers

We don't call it a tragedy when a renowned person dies after the century mark, especially if that person is brilliant NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who passed away yesterday at the venerable age of 101. Her death is a great historical loss, but by almost any measure we would consider reaching such a finish line a triumphant end to an already heroic life.

A prodigy and pioneer, Johnson joined the all-black “human computing” section at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1953. She would go on to calculate the launch windows and return trajectories for Alan Shepard’s first spaceflight, John Glenn’s first trip into orbit, and the Apollo Lunar Module’s first return from the Moon.

All this without the benefit of any machine computing power to speak of and—as Hidden Figures dramatizes through the powerful performance of Taraji P. Henson as Johnson—while facing the dual barriers of racism and sexism her white male bosses and co-workers blithely ignored or deliberately upheld.

Johnson and her fellow “computers,” without whom none of these major milestones would have been possible, had to fight not only for recognition and a seat at the table, but for the basic accommodations we take for granted in every workplace.

Her contributions didn’t end when the space race was over—her work was critical to the Space Shuttle program and she even worked on a mission to Mars. But Johnson herself kept things in perspective, telling People magazine in the interview above from 2016, “I’m 98. My greatest accomplishment is staying alive.” Still, she lived to see herself turned into the hero of that year’s critically lauded film based on the bestselling book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly—decades after she completed her most groundbreaking work.

Shetterly’s book, writes historian of technology Marie Hicks, casts Johnson and her fellow black women mathematicians “as protagonists in the grand drama of American technological history rather than mere details.” By its very nature, a Hollywood film adaptation will leave out important details and take liberties with the facts for dramatic effect and mass appeal. The feature treatment moves audiences, but it also soothes them with feel-good moments that “keep racism at arm’s length from a narrative that, without it, would never have existed.”

The point is not that Johnson and her colleagues decided to make racism and sexism central to their stories; they simply wanted to be recognized for their contributions and be given the same access and opportunities as their white male colleagues. But to succeed, they had to work together instead of competing with each other. Despite its simplifications and glosses over Cold War history and the depth of prejudice in American society, Hidden Figures does something very different from most biopics, as Atlantic editor Lenika Cruz writes, telling "a story of brilliance, but not of ego. It’s a story of struggle and willpower, but not of individual glory… it looks closely at the remarkable person in the context of a community.”

Katherine Johnson lived her life as a tremendous example for young women of color who excel at math and science but feel excluded from the establishment. On her 98th birthday, she “wanted to share a message to the young women of the world,” says the narrator of the 20th Century Studios video above: “Now it’s your turn.” And, she might have added, “you don’t have to do it alone.” Hear Hidden Figures author Shetterly discuss the critical contributions of Katherine and her extraordinary “human computer” colleagues in the interview below, and learn more about Johnson's life and legacy in the featurette at the top and at her NASA biography here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Word “Robot” Originated in a Czech Play in 1921: Discover Karel Čapek’s Sci-Fi Play R.U.R. (a.k.a. Rossum’s Universal Robots)

When I hear the word robot, I like to imagine Isaac Asimov’s delightfully Yiddish-inflected Brooklynese pronunciation of the word: “ro-butt,” with heavy stress on the first syllable. (A quirk shared by Futurama’s crustacean Doctor Zoidberg.) Asimov warned us that robots could be dangerous and impossible to control. But he also showed young readers—in his Norby series of kids’ books written with his wife Janet—that robots could be heroic companions, saving the solar system from cosmic supervillains.

The word robot conjures all of these associations in science fiction: from Blade Runner’s replicants to Star Trek’s Data. We might refer to these particular examples as androids rather than robots, but this confusion is precisely to the point. Our language has forgotten that robots started in sci-fi as more human than human, before they became Asimov-like machines. Like the sci-fi writer’s pronunciation of robot, the word originated in Eastern Europe in 1921, the year after Asimov’s birth, in a play by Czech intellectual Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or “Rossum’s Universal Robots.”

The title refers to the creations of Mr. Rossum, a Frankenstein-like inventor and possible inspiration for Metropolis’s Rotwang (who was himself an inspiration for Dr. Strangelove). Čapek told the London Saturday Review after the play premiered that Rossum was a “typical representative of the scientific materialism of the last [nineteenth] century,” with a “desire to create an artificial man—in the chemical and biological, not mechanical sense.”

Rossum did not wish to play God so much as “to prove God to be unnecessary and absurd.” This was but one stop on “the road to industrial production.” As technology analyst and Penn State professor John M. Jordan writes at the MIT Press Reader, Čapek’s robots were not appliances become sentient, nor trusty, superpowered sidekicks. They were, in fact, invented to be slaves.

The robot… was a critique of mechanization and the ways it can dehumanize people. The word itself derives from the Czech word “robota,” or forced labor, as done by serfs. Its Slavic linguistic root, “rab,” means “slave.” The original word for robots more accurately defines androids, then, in that they were neither metallic nor mechanical.

Jordan describes this history in an excerpt from his book Robots, part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, and a timelier than ever intervention in the cultural and technological history of robots, who walk (and moonwalk) among us in all sorts of machine forms, if not quite yet in the sense Čapek imagined. But a Blade Runner-like scenario seemed inevitable to him in a society ruled by “utopian notions of science and technology.”

In the time he imagines, he says, "the product of the human brain has escaped the control of human hands.” Čapek has one character, the robot Radius, make the point plainly:

The power of man has fallen. By gaining possession of the factory we have become masters of everything. The period of mankind has passed away. A new world has arisen. … Mankind is no more. Mankind gave us too little life. We wanted more life.

Sound familiar? While R.U.R. owes a “substantial” debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it’s also clear that Čapek contributed something original to the critique, a vision of a world in which “humans become more like their machines,” writes Jordan. “Humans and robots… are essentially one and the same.” Beyond the surface fears of science and technology, the play that introduced the word robot to the cultural lexicon also introduced the darker social critique in most stories about them: We have reason to fear robots because in creating them, we’ve recreated ourselves; then we've treated them the way we treat each other.

You can find the text of Čapek's play in book format on Amazon.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear the Voice of a 3,0000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy: Scientists 3-D Print His Throat & Mouth and Get Him to Speak … a Little

“The Mummy Speaks!” announces The New York Times in Nicholas St. Fleur’s story about Nesyamun, a mummified Egyptian priest whose voice has been recreated, sort of, “with the aid of a 3-D printed vocal tract” and an electronic larynx. Does the mummy sound like the monster of classic 1930’s horror? Scientists have only got as far as one syllable, “which resembles the ‘ah’ and ‘eh’ vowels sounds heard in the words ‘bad’ and ‘bed.'" Yet it's clear that Nesyamun would not communicate with guttural moans.

This may not make the recreation any less creepy. Nesyamun, whose coffin is inscribed with the words “true of voice,” was charged with singing and chanting the liturgies; “he had this wish,” says David Howard, speech scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, “that his voice would somehow continue into perpetuity.” Howard and his team’s 3-D printed recreation of his mouth and throat has allowed them to synthesize “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his coffin and his larynx came to life again.”

Let’s imagine a different scenario, shall we? One in which Nesyamun speaks from the ancient past rather than from the sarcophagus. “Voice from the Past” is, indeed, what the researchers call their project, and they hope that it will eventually enable museum goers to “engage with the past in completely new and innovative ways.”

If Nesyamun could be made to speak again, St. Fleur writes, “perhaps the mummy could recite for museum visitors his words to Nut, the ancient Egyptian goddess of the sky and heavens: ‘O mother Nut, spread out your wings over my face so you may allow me to be like the stars-which-know-no-destruction, like the stars-which-know-no-weariness, (and) not to die over again in the cemetery.”

Might we empathize? As University of York archaeologist John Schofield puts it, “there is nothing more personal than someone’s voice." Hearing the mummy speak would be "more multidimensional" than only staring at his corpse. The novelty of this experience aside, one can imagine the knowledge historians and linguists of ancient languages might gather from this research. Others in the scientific community have expressed their doubts. We may wish to temper our expectations.

Piero Cosi, an Italian speech scientist who helped reconstruct the voice of a mummified iceman named Ötzi in 2016 (speaking only in Italian vowels), points out the speculative nature of the science: “Even if we have the precise 3-D-geometric description of the voice system of the mummy, we would not be able to rebuild precisely his original voice.” Egyptologist Kara Cooney notes the clear potential for human biases to shape research that uses “so much inference about what [ancient people] looked or sounded like.”

So, what might be the value of approximating Nesyamun's voice? In their paper, published in Nature Scientific Reports, Howard and his co-authors explain, in language that sounds suspiciously like the kind that might invoke a classic horror movie mummy's curse:

While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.’ Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt.

Learn more about the Nesyamun's vocal recreation in the videos above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the Female Scientist Who Discovered the Greenhouse Gas Effect Was Forgotten by History

In the early 19th century, Aristotle’s Meteorologica still guided scientific ideas about the climate. The model “sprang from the ancient Greek concept of klima,” as Ian Beacock writes at The Atlantic, a static scheme that “divided the hemispheres into three fixed climatic bands: polar cold, equatorial heat, and a zone of moderation in the middle.” It wasn’t until the 1850s that the study of climate developed into what historian Deborah Cohen describes as “dynamic climatology.”

Indeed, 120 years before Exxon Mobile learned about—and then seemingly covered up—global warming, pioneering researchers discovered the greenhouse gas effect, the tendency for a closed environment like our atmosphere to heat up when carbon dioxide levels rise. The first person on record to link CO2 and global warming, amateur scientist Eunice Newton Foote, presented her research to the Eight Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1856.

Foote’s paper, “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays,” was reviewed the following month in the pages of Scientific American, in a column that approved of her “practical experiments” and noted, “this we are happy to say has been done by a lady.” She used an air pump, glass cylinders, and thermometers to compare the effects of sunlight on “carbonic acid gas” (or carbon dioxide) and “common air.” From her rudimentary but effective demonstrations, she concluded:

An atmosphere of that gas [CO2] would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature…must have necessarily resulted.

Unfortunately, her achievement would disappear three years later when Irish physicist John Tyndall, who likely knew nothing of Foote, made the same discovery. With his superior resources and privileges, Tyndall was able to take his research further. “In retrospect,” one climate science database writes, Tyndall has emerged as the founder of climate science, though the view “hides a complex, and in many ways more interesting story.”

Neither Tyndall nor Foote wrote about the effect of human activity on the contemporary climate. It would take until the 1890s for Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius to predict human-caused warming from industrial CO2 emissions. But subsequent developments depended upon their insights. Foote, whose was born 200 years ago this past July, was marginalized almost from the start. “Entirely because she was a woman,” the Public Domain Review points out, “Foote was barred from reading the paper describing her findings."

Furthermore, Foote "was passed over for publication in the Association’s annual Proceedings.” Her paper was published in The American Journal of Science, but was mostly remarked upon, as in the Scientific American review, for the marvel of such homespun ingenuity from “a lady.” The review, titled “Scientific Ladies—Experiments with Condensed Gas,” opened with the sentence “Some have not only entertained, but expressed the mean idea, that women do not possess the strength of mind necessary for scientific investigation.”

The praise of Foote credits her as a paragon of her gender, while failing to convey the universal importance of her discovery. At the AAAS conference, the Smithsonian’s Joseph Henry praised Foote by declaring that science was “of no country and of no sex,” a statement that has proven time and again to be untrue in practice. The condescension and discrimination Foote endured points to the multiple ways in which she was excluded as a woman—not only from the scientific establishment but from the educational institutions and funding sources that supported it.

Her disappearance, until recently, from the history of science “plays into the Matilda Effect,” Leila McNeill argues at Smithsonian, “the trend of men getting credit for female scientist’s achievements.” In this case, there’s no reason not to credit both scientists, who made original discoveries independently. But Foote got there first. Had she been given the credit she was due at the time—and the institutional support to match—there’s no telling how far her work would have taken her.

Just as Foote’s discovery places her firmly within climate science history, retrospectively, her “place in the scientific community, or lack therof,” writes Amara Huddleston at Climate.gov, “weaves into the broader story of women’s rights.” Foote attended the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, and her name is fifth down on the list of signatories to the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document demanding full equality in social status, legal rights, and educational, economic, and, Foote would have added, scientific opportunities.

Learn much more about Foote and her fascinating family from her descendent, marine biologist Liz Foote.

via Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Medical Student Creates Intricate Anatomical Embroideries of the Brain, Heart, Lungs & More

My first thought upon seeing the delicate, anatomy-based work of the 23-year-old embroidery artist and medical student Emmi Khan was that the Girl Scouts must have expanded the categories of skills eligible for merit badges.

(If memory serves, there was one for embroidery, but it certainly didn’t look like a cross-sectioned brain, or a sinus cavity.)

Closer inspection revealed that the circular views of Khan’s embroideries are not quite as tiny as the round badges stitched to high achieving Girl Scouts’ sashes, but rather still framed in the wooden hoops that are an essential tool of this artist’s trade.

Methods both scientific and artistic are a source of fascination for Khan, who began taking needlework inspiration from anatomy as an undergrad studying biomedical sciences. As she writes on her Moleculart website:

Science has particular methods: it is fundamentally objective, controlled, empirical. Similarly, art has particular methods: there is an emphasis on subjectivity and exploration, but there is also an element of regulation regarding how art is created... e.g. what type of needle to use to embroider or how to prime a canvas.

The procedures and techniques adopted by scientists and artists may be very different. Ultimately, however, they both have a common aim. Artists and scientists both want to 1) make sense of the vastness around them in new ways, and 2) present and communicate it to others through their own vision. 

A glimpse at the flowers, intricate stitches, and other dainties that populate her Pinterest boards offers a further peek into Khan’s methods, and might prompt some readers to pick up a needle themselves, even those with no immediate plans to embroider a karyotype or The Circle of Willis, the circular anastomosis of arteries at the base of the brain.

The Cardiff-based medical student delights in embellishing her threaded observations of internal organs with the occasional decorative element—sunflowers, posies, and the like…

She makes herself available on social media to answer questions on subjects ranging from embroidery tips to her relationship to science as a devout Muslim, and to share works in progress, like a set of lungs that embody the Four Seasons, commissioned by a customer in the States.

To see more of Emmi Khan’s work, including a downloadable anatomical floral heart embroidery pattern, visit Molecularther Instagram page, or her Etsy shop.

via Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York: The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Download Beautiful Free Posters Celebrating the Achievements of Living Female STEM Leaders

Remember the posters that decorated your childhood or teenaged bedroom?

Of course you do.

Whether aspirational or inspirational, these images are amazingly potent.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit what hung over my bed, especially in light of a certain CGI adaptation…

No such worries with a set of eight free downloadable posters honoring eight female trailblazers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

These should prove evergreen.

Commissioned by Nevertheless, a podcast that celebrates women whose advancements in STEM fields have shaped—and continue to shape—education and learning, each poster is accompanied with a brief biographical sketch of the subject.

Nevertheless has taken care that the featured achievers are drawn from a wide cultural and racial pool.

No shame if you’re unfamiliar with some of these extraordinary women. Their names may not possess the same degree of household recognition as Marie Curie, but they will once they’re hanging over your daughter’s (or son’s) bed.

It’s worth noting that with the exception of the undersung mother of DNA Helix Rosalind Franklin, these are living role models. They are:

Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison

Robotics pioneer Dr. Cynthia Breazeal

Mathematician Gladys West

Tech innovator Juliana Rotich

Pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou

Biopharmacist and women rights advocate Maria da Penha

Biotechnologist Dr. Hayat Sindi

Kudos, too, to Nevertheless for including biographies of the eight female illustrators charged with bringing the STEM luminaries to aesthetically cohesive graphic life: Lidia Tomashevskaya,Thandiwe TshabalalaCamila RosaXu HuiKarina PerezJoana NevesGeneva B, and Juliette Brocal

Listen to Nevertheless’ episode on STEM Role Models here.

Download Nevertheless’ free posters in English here. You can also download zipped folders containing all eight posters translated into Brazilian PortugueseFrenchFrench CanadianGermanItalianSpanish, and Simplified Chinese.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Richard Feynman’s “Lost Lecture:” An Animated Retelling

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is “famous in a number of dimensions,” says science and math explainer Grant Sanderson of the YouTube channel 3blue1brown in the video above. “To scientists, he’s a giant of 20th century physics… to the public, he’s a refreshing contradiction to the stereotypes about physicists: a safe-cracking, bongo-playing, mildly philandering non-conformist.” Feynman is also famous, or infamous, for his role in the Manhattan Project and the building of the first atomic bomb, after which the FBI kept tabs on him to make sure he wouldn't, like his colleague Klaus Fuchs, turn over nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

He may have led an exceptionally eventful life for an academic scientist, but to his students, he was first and foremost “an exceptionally skillful teacher… for his uncanny ability to make complicated topics feel natural and approachable.” Feynman’s teaching has since influenced millions of readers of his wildly popular memoirs and his lecture series, recorded at Caltech and published in three volumes in the early 1960s. (Also see his famous course taught at Cornell.) For decades, Feynman fans could list offhand several examples of the physicist’s acumen for explaining complex ideas in simple, but not simplistic, terms.

But it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the public had access to one of the finest of his Caltech lectures. Discovered in the 1990s and first published in 1996, the “lost lecture”—titled “The Motion of the Planets Around the Sun”—“uses nothing more than advanced high school geometry to explain why the planets orbit the sun elliptically rather than in perfect circles," as the Amazon description summarizes. You can purchase a copy for yourself, or hear it Feynman deliver for free just below.

Feynman gave the talk as the guest speaker in a 1964 freshman physics class. He addresses them, he says, “just for the fun of it"; none of the material would be on the test. Nevertheless, he ended up hosting an informal 20-minute Q&A afterwards. Given his audience, Feynman assumes only the most basic prior knowledge of the subject: an explanation for why the planets make elliptical orbit around the sun. “It ultimately has to do with the inverse square law,” says Sanderson, “but why?”

Part of the problem with the lecture, as its discoverers David and Judith Goodstein—husband and wife physicist and archivist at Caltech—found, involves Feynman’s extensive reference to figures he draws on the blackboard. It took some time for the two to dig these diagrams up in a set of class notes. In Sanderson’s video at the top, we get something perhaps even better: animated physical representations of the mathematics that determine planetary motion. We need not know this math in depth to grasp what Feynman calls his “elementary” explanation.

“Elementary” in this case, despite common usage, does not mean “easy,” Feynman says. It means “that very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.” That last part is a typical bit of humor. Even those of who haven’t pursued math or physics much beyond the high school level can learn the basic outlines of planetary motion in Feynman’s witty lecture, supplemented by the video visual aids Sanderson offers at the top.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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